In a communiqué appearing in a number of Arab daily papers, 46 writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals from different Arab countries announced their solidarity with Günter Grass. The wording of the communiqué, however, is extremely controversial. Mona Naggar reports
"How can we hold a pubescent youth, held under the sway of hellish National Socialist propaganda, responsible for actions that were not subject to free choice?" wrote the signatories of the solidarity letter. They regard the admission by Grass that he was a member of the Waffen SS as a sign of his courage, which deserves respect and recognition.
Criticism of Grass has been interpreted as being part of a campaign aimed at distracting attention away from the crimes Israel has committed in Palestine and Lebanon. Israelis are referred to as "Neo-Nazis" who "kill Palestinians and Lebanese, destroy their countries, erect barrier walls, and throw people into camps."
Among the signatories are prominent names, such as the Egyptian novelist and cultural journalist Gamal al-Ghitani, Jabir Asfur, the Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of Culture, the Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad, and the Moroccan poet Mohamed Bennis.
Over the past few weeks, the Arab media has increasingly reported on the ongoing discussion in Germany about Günter Grass. For the most part, the reports have repeated the various positions in the debate. Some commentators, however, have expressed their lack of understanding for the condemnation of Grass.
Shaking up the mire of Arab culture
Abdalwahid Khalid al-Hamid, for example, wrote in the Saudi Arabian newspaper "ar-Riyadh" that he is convinced that intellectuals usually are forgiven all their mistakes – with the exception of anti-Semitism and being associated with National Socialism.
Very few of the Arab commentators used the debate about Grass as an occasion to encourage Arab intellectuals to critically examine their own pasts. In the Internet newspaper "Elaph," Samir Tahir wrote,
"I have not heard from a single Iraqi intellectual, who, even just to draw attention to himself, has admitted having supported the former bloody regime in Iraq. Not a single magnanimous soul decided to admit his own weakness. If this would occur only just once, it would shake up the mire of Arab culture."
The communiqué has revealed the degree of ignorance both of the signatories and also the Arab media with respect to the debate about Günter Grass in Germany.
It also showed that none of those who signed the communiqué are familiar with the work of the German Nobel laureate, although his complete work has been translated into Arabic for a number of years. In addition, there is complete ignorance of Grass' political stance, particularly his support of Israel's right to exist.
No support from Yemeni literary colleagues
Four years ago, Grass visited an Arab country for the first time. He traveled to Yemen upon the invitation of Abdalaziz al-Maqalih, head of the Yemeni Center for Study and Research and one of the co-signatories. At the time, the visit provoked criticism.
A number of Arab intellectuals could not understand why the most well-known German writer would travel to the periphery of the Arab world, which has virtually nothing to show in terms of intellectual activity, in order to engage in a cultural dialogue with a "Thousand and One Nights" backdrop.
Yet, during his trip, Günther Grass managed to have the young Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal pardoned. After writing a critical novel, al-Ahdal had found himself persecuted by government as well as religious authorities. Back then, he received no support from his Yemeni literary colleagues, who today have signed the solidarity letter for Grass.
Lack of critical self-examination
The communiqué reveals much about the judgment of Arab intellectuals. They have not dealt with their own entanglement with various Arab dictators. They live in a world of conspiracy theories, far removed from reality, confuse populist slogans and rhetoric for intellectual discourse, and see no necessity in coming to terms with the Holocaust and the crimes of National Socialism.
Reaction to the show of solidarity has, until now, been only sporadic. The Lebanese journalist Iskander Habash demanded in the daily paper "as-Safir" that Arab culture should finally abandon fiery slogans, such as those employed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
The Jordanian journalist Fakhri Saleh, who did not sign the communiqué, wrote in the daily paper "al-Hayat" that he is convinced that "the campaign against Grass has, to a great extent, been fueled by supporters of Israel bearing a grudge against Western writers who do not stop criticizing Israel."
Some of the signatories of the solidarity letter for Günther Grass are welcome guests at various German events promoting cultural dialogue. It is high time to raise the issue of this extremely embarrassing and scandalous show of solidarity.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by John Bergeron